The Magazine

The Master’s Voices

Henry James gets the scholarly treatment.

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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That Edel was especially nervous about how to treat James’s sexuality—Anesko writes it as “(homo)sexuality”—is testified to in a lively diary entry from the English writer (and homosexual) Harold Nicolson. During a lunch at New York’s Century Club, Nicolson reports, Edel was perplexed and distressed about how to proceed with the man whom Nicolson calls “a late-flowering bugger” whose “Boston puritanism retarded him until it was too late to get full satisfaction from it.” Nicolson advised Edel to treat it as a matter of course, although his colorful formulation of James’s character could hardly be of use to the biographer worried about the sensibilities of surviving relatives.

Anesko’s final chapter is titled, rather surprisingly, “The Legend of the Bastard.” The allusion is to James’s story about a writer, “The Lesson of the Master,” but also, evidently, to Edel. Other epithets include “the careful Canadian” and “Chairman of the Board,” the latter by way of bringing out Edel’s affinities with hardheaded Harry James, the earlier guardian of the treasure. Himself a candidate for a Harvard doctorate, Anesko was unaware of the longstanding prohibition against graduate students consulting the manuscripts. When the restrictions were finally lifted in 1973, he cautiously approached the librarian at Houghton inquiring whether it was possible to see some of James’s manuscript letters. Replied the librarian, after a pause, “Well, Leon’s done with his book”—so permission was granted. 

Anesko’s final sentence, alluding to the opening of The Wings of the Dove (“She waited, Kate Croy”), he applies with a twist to himself and his frustrated colleagues: “We waited, Leon Edel.”

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst.